A south Minneapolis City Council member is questioning whether the city could be doing more to respond to traumatic events like the Aug. 2 police shooting of a man during a violent domestic dispute.
In e-mails to city and police staff, Alondra Cano asked why no funding from the city’s ReCAST initiative — short for Resilience in Communities After Stress and Trauma — was being used for “readily available providers ... to be on standby to respond to these circumstances.”
“It feels hard to have to reinvent the wheel, or activate it, in sporadic moments when our community experiences the loss of life,” Cano wrote in the chain of e-mails with city officials obtained by the Star Tribune.
The exchange came the day after an officer fatally shot 32-year-old Mario Benjamin because police say he refused to drop a gun that he reportedly used to shoot his girlfriend in front of her four children.
“I cannot imagine what the woman who was shot, her family, and the family and friends of the person who died are going through,” wrote Cano, who represents the Ninth Ward and chairs the Public Safety Committee. “While word on the street may be that this was not an innocent bystander losing a life, it is still a loss of life, and that is difficult for the many who witnessed it or are close to it.”
The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is investigating. Last week, officials identified the officer who shot Benjamin as Jason Wolff, a seven-year law enforcement veteran. He and his police partner, Ryan Davis, who didn’t fire his weapon, remain on standard administrative leave.
Cano wrote that she was under the impression that the ReCAST money should have gone to provide care for those affected by Benjamin’s death. She later said she was under the impression that $1 million in funding that the city received every year for the program was intended to help the city respond after just such incidents.
“To clarify, I’m not asking for a big splashy response on this — just a response for the families who experienced this gun violence nonetheless,” she wrote.
But Joy Marsh Stephens, director of the city’s Division of Race & Equity, wrote back saying that the council member’s “understanding that these funds are designed to support community in the case of (an officer-involved shooting) is not accurate.”
“If at any time you’d like a broader breakdown of how those funds are being used, please let me know,” Marsh Stephens wrote.
In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded Minneapolis ReCAST up to $1 million a year for five years to “assist high-risk youth and families and promote resilience and equity in communities that have recently faced civil unrest” through a variety of programming and “trauma-informed behavior health services.”
When reached for comment on Friday, Marsh Stephens reiterated what she said in her e-mail to Cano: that the ReCAST funding was not intended to be used in such incidents as the Benjamin shooting.
Danielle Walczak, the city’s director of Strategic Initiatives, wrote back that she had been in contact with Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, in whose ward the shooting occurred, and that they agreed that the “community has not indicated that trauma-related services are needed at this time.” Ellison said in a later interview that he agreed the city could be doing more to help residents affected by violence.
The Benjamin shooting occurred about 2:49 a.m., but for the next several hours, his body lay in the street, uncovered, in plain view of neighbors going about their morning routines.
Roxxanne O’Brien, a Minneapolis activist who often speaks out about police and environmental issues, was among the first residents to show up at the scene, which she livestreamed on her cellphone. O’Brien said she heard residents complain of disrespectful treatment from certain investigators at the scene, while she and others were also frustrated by the lack of information coming from police or the BCA.
“There’s no good response to the community at all when this happens,” said O’Brien, who with some of her students at Juxtaposition Arts has taken to distributing care packages after traumatic episodes. “When somebody dies or somebody gets shot, there is no acknowledgment of us being human.”
Justice Jones, who also helps distribute the packages, said they contain “affirmations, healing stones, planners, sage, water bottles and more, in an attempt to remind those around us that they are loved and that they are seen.”
“Most adults are just bigger and wiser children; most people need to be reminded after trauma that their voices and their bodies matter,” she said. “When we don’t address it or come together, we allow that space to be filled with more anger, which further pushes the cycle.”
The sight of a dead body lying in the street can be emotionally jarring even for those who didn’t know the parties involved, said child psychologist Abigail Gewirtz, adding that the sound of gunfire alone can have the same effect.
“Anytime you witness anything that is not within your realm of the expected, that is horrifying, gruesome, gory, awful, involves injury or death — that’s traumatizing,” said Gewirtz, director of the U’s Institute for Translation Research in Children’s Mental Health. Left untreated, it can lead to deeper problems, she said, like post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse.
Cities like Los Angeles, Detroit and Providence, R.I., send crisis intervention teams to crime scenes to provide grief counseling for neighbors and witnesses, according to a recent Urban Institute report. In Richmond, Va., law enforcement and social services groups have teamed up for the RESET (Rapid Engagement of Support in the Event of Trauma) program, going door-to-door in areas where a homicide has occurred to advise residents of what happened, as well as connect them with available services — all with an eye toward warding off further violence.
In Minneapolis, police chaplains are sent to the scene of shootings and other violent episodes to minister to grieving family and friends. And last year, the city was picked for a national initiative by the International Association of Chiefs of Police intended to “assist law enforcement in developing, implementing, and assessing comprehensive evidence-based and trauma-informed response strategies, protocols, and interventions that promote community engagement and healing related to divisive events.”
Like other law enforcement agencies around the state, Minneapolis started training its investigators on how trauma can affect victims of sexual violence and other kinds of violence after the publication of the Star Tribune’s “Denied Justice” series, which documented serious lapses in how police departments investigated allegations of sexual misconduct. detailed serious lapses. And new officers are learning about how historical trauma can be triggered by events people read about in the news or on social media, even if they have no personal connection to the event.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has said in the past that trauma affects community and police alike, including those officers who use deadly force on the job — and yet, he says, many don’t seek help, even when stress becomes unbearable.
In a follow-up interview, Cano said she remained “confused” by Marsh Stevens’ response, “which was basically like a nonresponse.” She maintained that some of the ReCAST funding could have been used to provide trauma counseling and mental health support to people after Benjamin’s death and other shootings, an approach that she says is already being taken in her ward.
“We know that gun violence impacts the village, it impacts the community, it’s not just a single isolated incident,” Cano said this week. “What I’m concerned about is just the consistency and the presence of gun violence in the community is taking a toll — it’s taking a toll on people’s psyche.”